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Monday, February 18, 2013

Blessed are they who escaped a life of misery and went far, far away from where repression and hatred lies. Brave and lucky whoever had the courage to go west, beyond the Iron Courtain and managed to reach freedom. It was risky, like being rocketed to the moon. And it took tasks that are described in this record.

For some reason I believe Whose Side Are You On? is about escaping the cold of communism for the warmth of the Western freedom. It is an encounter of an eastern girl with two U.K. guys who created a unique concept for its time. Unfortunately the first line-up didn't last too long.

Matt Bianco is not a person and definetly not a band, being this line-up disbanded completely after a one and only tour, but their story is pretty unique and I'm sure after you hear this album, you'll be impressed. But hey, you have to have open ears and let your emotions flow.

What we have here is one of those records that hook you and won't let go. This if you have a thing for the eighties' synth-pop sound and you once thought they were just a one hit wonder, fun to dance to but with additional flavors needed. Matt Bianco brings that spicyness and makes this one of the best debut albums ever.

It was formed after a jazz project named Blue Rondo A La Turk, and the idea of naming a band with a guy's name wasn't exactly creative (Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd were names already taken.) At the beginning there was Kito Poncioni on bass (who left after 10-15 minutes, probably), Mark Reilly on vocals and Danny White on keyboards. A polish girl named Basia Trzetrzelewska (omit the last name and you have a household name of High-End pop) gets called to work with them, they get a pre-WWII fashion look (very elegant for Basia, hey... she never looked so gorgeous) and the band was more than ready.

However, Bianco seemed to be doomed from the beginning. England wasn't ready yet for caribbean-latin pop sounds yet and they didn't make it at all in the U.S. But this didn't avoid them reaching a cult status and becoming a guilty pleasure for whoever ran into this record and the subsequent ones.

They were misunderstood, as most of the innovative things coming out of the eighties. They even got insulted on public TV:

Bastards! This is one of the greatest album of the eighties! Before the inevitable disbanding, they produced amazing pieces of work that somehow reach our emotional strings: "Whose Side Are You On?" is a funky synth pop tune with a walking bass setting up a spy movie in the twilight of the Cold War. Somebody is delivering important information to be delivered to western european intelligence but gets poisoned in an Italian Cafe. The East payed more money to the counter-spy. This incident seems isolated but thanks to Basia's distinctive background vocal work, haunts the entire record with paranoia, romance and longing for freedom.

"More Than I Can Bear" may be about a man longing for the departed lover, but in the album's context it's about a man with no past, maybe a spy, who fell in love with the wrong woman at the wrong time. The CD version of this tune features Mark Reilly by himself wailing about lost love; but in the LP version Basia helps him coping with the pain, creating literally one of the best pop performances of the eighties. You have to hear it to believe it.

After "Bear", the beginning of the Cha-cha in "No No Never" will make you think the rest of the album will suck big time and the first two tracks were just lucky strikes. But no, the song starts growing on you and all of a sudden we get the sensation of having a Caribbean story told by Europeans in a very elegant way. Crossover big time.

"Half A Minute" features Basia's high pitched perfect lead vocals in an amazing, fast paced samba that would make Astrud Gilberto tremble. Samba becomes pop in "It's Getting Late" when Basia plays an innocent girl trying to leave a bachelor's pad while he insists she can spend the night in it. She might be looking for protection but she is still scared to ask for it; therefore, the only way is out. "Get Out Your Lazy Bed," another tune about rushing into freedom by embracing capitalism, was maybe the biggest dance tune of the album, and it's there when we fall in love with Trzetrzelewska's angelical voice, being an emotional counterpart to Mark Reilly's baritone-a-la-Elvis sound.

Whose Side Are You On? is about ex-patriates trying to make it in the West and songwriters Reilly and Fisher play with the idea well: Matt Bianco is supposed to be the name of a spy a-la-James Bond who might be dealing with cold war issues of the time, including romantic affairs with complicated women who don't know what they want. If it's not an album about trespassing, then what is "Sneaking Out the Back Door" about? Matt Bianco releases himself of all responsabilities of a relationship and just... walks away singing a catchy dancing tune with a steady synth-bass riff all over a rocking jazz-chord progression. "Riding With The Wind" is the low point of the record but it's a necessary one, as it embeds the entire idea of moving from point A to point B; an idea present during the entire record, even in the two cohesive, cinematic instrumental tracks that close each side of the LP: "Matt's Mood" and "Matt's Mood II."

Shazam! A concept album of high caliber: Whose Side Are You On? is a collection of songs about freedom and how to reach it, for sure. It's more related to the iron curtain than anything else.

It's a shame that the CD doesn't feature the Basia/Reilly version of "More Than I Can Bear," we get the Mark Reilly-only version. We asked Danny White about this and he told us this:

"Originally on the album, 'More Than I can Bear' had no Basia vocals. The record company [WEA] wanted to release it as a single and suggested Basia should sing on it. This we did and we liked it and on the vinyl version of the record we updated it to include this new version. However the CD version remained with the original version on it (CDs in those days were not the dominant format)."

Also, the original CD doesn't include the bonus tracks featured in the cassette: "Big Rosie" and "The Other Side."

Danny also commented with us why they left the band:

"Basia was not happy just singing backing vocals (with the exception of 'Half a Minute') and felt she had more to offer as a writer as well as a singer. Basia and I were in a relationship at the time, so it seemed natural for me to leave with her".

Basia and Danny White moved on to CBS and three years later released Time And Tide. Was it good? Hell yeah!

The disbandment made Reilly look for partners to reboot the Bianco server and he found it in former Wham! keyboard player Mark Fisher. They released a series of albums throught the nineties (each one full of nice surprises) and circa 2000, Fisher took a leave of absence. Reilly then called back Trzetrzelewska and White who'd been working together since the break-up and recorded a reunion album, Matt's Mood, which is a pleasure to listen to, but way less innocent and intense than Whose Side Are You On?. They went on tour in Europe and the audiences went nuts. Currently, Basia and White are working on a Basia solo project but no news of Reilly's involvment.

Whose Side Are You On? is a masterpiece, period, and the kick-off of one of the most underrated acts in pop history. Too bad Matt Bianco is just widely known for their 1988 hit "Don't Blame It On That Girl" (from the album Indigo, which is a very good record and we can talk about this later.) After finishing listening to it, we realize there's so much to discover out there...


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